Every time US President Barack Obama has a harsh word to say for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, he enhances the domestic popularity of the man he loves to hate.
One of his first acts upon entering the White House in 2009 was to lean hard on Netanyahu to freeze Jerusalem and West Bank settlement construction for the sake of opening the door to peace negotiations with the Palestinians. He only neglected to obtain Mahmoud Abbas’s consent to this deal. And so, after ten fruitless months, Netanyahu ended the freeze.
Now, four years later, instead of squeezing the Israeli prime minister for concessions, Obama is dumping on him a mountain of criticism just a week before he faces the Israeli voter on Jan 22, 2013
This Tuesday, Jan. 15, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor would neither confirm nor deny a report on the Bloomberg website by Jeffrey Goldberg, who quoted Obama as calling Benjamin Netanyahu a "political coward" whose policies “pose a greater threat to Israel's existence than Iran's nuclear program because he does not know what is in the country's best interests.”
According to Goldberg, the president thinks that "If Israel, a small state in an inhospitable region, becomes more of a pariah – one that alienates even the affections of the US, its last steadfast friend – it won't survive." Those are harsh words indeed – not all that far from the public calls President Obama once made for Hosni Mubarak to step down as Egyptian president, Muammar Qaddafi to get lost and Bashar Assad to remove himself from power.
What he seems to be saying to Netanyahu is this: If you don’t change your policy – specifically on West Bank settlement and Jerusalem and concessions to the Palestinians – you and not an Iranian nuclear bomb will bring Israel to ruin.
Netanyahu counts his blessings, conferred by Obama
The next day found Netanyahu counting the blessings showered on him by the US president. Rather than ruing the damage caused by Obama’s disparagement, he crowed over the ultimate boost it gave him for enhancing his widely-predicted election victory.
In a brief statement issued by his office, Netanyahu said: “Over the last four years, we have withstood enormous pressures” and will continue to safeguard national interests and fend off every attempt to force Israel to go back to the pre-1967 borders.
He followed this up with the comment: “Everyone understands that only Israelis will determine who faithfully represents their vital interests,” he told soldiers during a visit to the IDF Gaza Division.
In the last month of campaigning, the prime minister has been casting about for a device to halt the vote drain from his combined Likud-Israel Beitenu party, which he co-heads with ex-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, to the nationalist Jewish Home party under its new leader Naftali Bennett.
This party, under its high-tech tycoon, has proved a magnet for right-of-center voters anxious for a counterweight to offset their fears that Netanyahu will eventually buckle under the US president’s pressure and sit down with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas for more Israeli concessions in Judea and Samaria.
Obama’s denigration of the prime minister put this device in his hands and quickly turned around his party’s falling rating in opinion polls.
The political strategists advising the US president clearly misread the fundamental dynamic of Israeli politics: Voters tend to defiantly rally around their government when up against a hostile force.
New parties and faces stumble on their inexperience
This election campaign perplexes even the most seasoned pundits with its inconsistencies, fluid partisan boundaries and new faces unmarked by political experience.
Israel’s 5.5 million eligible voters long for change in the long-stagnant party scene, but are hard put to navigate among Bennett, new leader of a traditional party, Tzipi Livni, former foreign minister, who has created a new party named after herself and is associated with a former government’s over-generous peace policy;
the newcomer Yair Lapid, ex-journalist who created the party of The Future; or another ex-journalist, Shelly Yacimovitch, who has taken on the veteran, oft-split Labor party, declaring that she is a Social Democrat.
The new parties and personalities have been flitting nimbly between left-of-center and right-of-center affinities, blurring the lines between them.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's political analysts believe that change is on the way, but it will take years before the current upheaval settles down into some coherent form. For now, the untried newcomers keep on tripping over themselves with naïve contradictions, inexperienced political game tactics, unformed policy platforms and their failure to focus on distinct constituencies. They all claim to be in opposition to the Netanyahu government, but their transient alliances for defeating him, especially in the left of center, have descended into fraternal bickering among the allies.
A week before the vote, their leaders turned to racing each other for portfolios in the next Netanyahu government.
Netanyahu’s coming victory is unquestioned
No one doubts that Netanyahu will win the election and another term as prime minister. Certainly not the heads of the opposition parties, left and right, who – aside from the tiny far-left Meretz – are bidding hard for places in his government.
Even Livni, whose speeches slamming Netanyahu and accusing him of bringing Israel into international isolation, were strongly echoed in Jeffrey Goldberg’s think piece, sounds as though she is coming around.
She said Wednesday, Jan. 16, that she would not join the Netanyahu government “as a fig leaf” for his intransigence, but if he opts for the peace process with the Palestinians, she would reconsider.
After they held a few meetings, the prime minister denied he had offered Livni a government post in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians. Such denials before an election rarely survive the post-election realities.
Furthermore, as DEBKA has reported, Obama already has a commitment from Netanyahu in his pocket to meet Abbas in Amman, Jordan in March, after the Israeli government followed the US line on easing restrictions for the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza in coordination with Washington, Ankara and Cairo.
So what brought on the US president’s sudden personal assault on Netanyahu just days before he faces the Israeli voter?
The vocal anti-Iran strike opponents drop out of Israeli political center
Several explanations are making the rounds in Jerusalem, of which three are the most pervasive:
1. Obama was angered by the Israeli prime minister’s drive, fronted by American Jewish leaders, against
Chuck Hagel's appointment as Defense Secretary.
The Goldberg article was deliberately timed to appear Tuesday, January 15, when a delegation of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) leaders, who led the fight against Hagel, arrived in Jerusalem to meet with Netanyahu.
Facing a united Israeli-US-based assault on the Hagel appointment, Obama decided on a strong reprisal.
2. As we indicated last week (DNW. 571: The Hagel-Brennan Show & Iran: Netanyahu Harks Back to Unilateral Strike Option against Nuclear Iran), Obama is more concerned by the Iranian issue with Israel than the Palestinian question. Hence, his harshest comment, according to the Bloomberg report – “if Israeli becomes more of a pariah, it won’t survive” – was in fact a threat to the Israeli prime minister against venturing on a unilateral strike to preempt a nuclear Iran.
3. And finally, personalities are never far from the surface. Almost unnoticed, all the leading opponents of Israeli military activism against Iran, carefully nurtured by the Obama administration, have quietly dropped out of the center of Israeli politics.
They include the highly vocal ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak. For a variety of reasons, they have all begun to look like has-beens, especially now that a new Netanyahu administration is on the threshold.
Obama and his associates, who cultivated these figures for their thunder against the Israeli leader, are no doubt chagrined by their wasted effort. The US president felt he couldn’t afford to let it go without a word and so found a simple and easy way to hit back.